BY STEVE HANKIN
This coming Monday, July 23rd, I will be presenting about the future of the Los Angeles Equestrian Center (LAEC) to the LA Equine Advisory Board during their July Meeting. I come to this meeting as a horseman and rider, as a resident of LA with my wife Lisa, and as a businessman with over 30 years experience in a range of service businesses.
Last January, I attended the USEF Annual Meeting in Lexington, Kentucky to cheer on my wife’s trainer and good friend, Jenny Karazissis, when she was awarded the Emerson Burr Award. It was an evening of great tributes to people who have had immeasurable impact on the equestrian sport. One of the many tributes that evening was for Joe Dotoli, who was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Joe’s contributions to the sport over his career cannot be understated, and through each section of the tribute, I learned more and more about how one single person can move the needle of our sport. I was most inspired by his almost singular role in pushing the industry to mandate wearing of ASTM/SEI approved safety helmets from traditional hunt caps.
So much more than any accomplishment, however, was what struck me most during Joe’s acceptance comments was the simple statement, “it’s about the horse.”
As a lifelong equestrian family member, I am relatively new to my own path as horseman. I have watched with joy, as support team for my wife and seen her wonderful smile after a great round. I have come to appreciate the sheer joy she gets out of being an owner and watching Jenny ride her wonderful mare, Pui. I have beamed with pride about my brother Mike, a top steeplechase owner, and the success of Northwoods Farm, and watched my nephew Connor rise in the ranks as a steeplechase jockey in his own right, until his early “retirement” at 23 to join the Marines and serve our country. I have only begun to ride myself in the last several years, practicing with enthusiasm and making my hunter show ring debut in early 2018.
How did I get in the position of speaking up for the community for the future of LAEC? I might seem like a funny choice to some – I am certainly not a horse trainer. I have lived in LA for three years, plenty of time to enjoy nuances of the city, but certainly not a lifetime member of the broader community. I am a horse lover, an equestrian enthusiast for all horse sport, and a businessman who looks at opportunity and growth and how extensively that favors people involved at every level of the sport and financial spectrum.
Most importantly, I go back to what I learned about and from Joe. When something is essential to you, take up the cause, especially when it’s about the horse. This cause – the LAEC moving into the future – is essential to me. It is essential to have a great quality of life for our animals in LA. It is essential to have a strong sport and participation within a community whose love for animals needs more locations and opportunities to thrive. It is essential to me to make a vibrant business community where trainers, vendors, braiders, grooms, and every other aspect of our service industry have locations and opportunities to work, make a living, and flourish.
In anticipation of my presentation on Monday, I would like to make clear exactly what I am trying to accomplish.
My journey in merging my passion for horses and equestrian lifestyle and my long business career is relatively recent. A year and half ago, I led a group to purchase one of the larger horse shows on the West Coast. While the deal ultimately fell through, I did spend a year meeting many of the trainers and participants in the industry in California. The education of the landscape of issues facing the hunter/jumper show community in 2017-2018 was unique and pushed me to believe that we are at a critical juncture for moving our sport forward. While horse showing costs and expectations have only skyrocketed, and numbers of horses and revenue have increased to match, keeping up with the national business model has become a struggle for most West Coast show facilities. Unlike the East Coast, California equestrians face a dearth of high-quality show facilities. The vast majority are public facilities, where the municipalities struggle with the high cost of maintaining top-notch show grounds.
Which leads me to the LA Equestrian Center. In 1976, the City of Los Angeles deeded 76 acres for an equestrian center. Despite a troubled start, the Equestrian Center for a period of time was a center of activity for equestrians in Los Angeles. Speak to anyone in the industry, and they will regale in stories of great events at the Equestrian Center. Unfortunately, the great stories will be followed by “what happened, why is it such a mess, how could the City let it fall into such disrepair.”
A year ago, I began a series of phone calls to Rec and Parks to understand the situation at LAEC. After months of peppering the folks with phone calls, sharing data showing that participation in hunter/jumper shows at LAEC has declined nearly 80 percent in the last 8 years and then more phone calls, I finally met with the folks at RAP. At the time, they indicated they would likely put the management contract out to bid. With energy, I hired a design firm and a public affairs firm. And then, I heard that the RAP was going to extend the current contract. One thing led to another and many of you probably received a request to write a letter to RAP, City Council, and the City of LA, urging them not to extend the current contract. So, a thousand letters later, I’m a few days from standing in front of the LA Equine Advisory Committee.
My goal is simple: ask the City and Recs and Parks to issue a new Request for Proposals. Allow the best and the brightest in the equestrian world to submit their ideas, commitments, and plans to the City and spur the innovation and reinvigoration necessary for a thriving equestrian local community. Whomever is chosen, the entire community will benefit from analysis, sunlight, and new visions that stem from this opening up this discussion. Open the door for new leadership, on equal proposal playing field, and allow for potential of new leadership and new stewards of our shared equestrian future.
The meeting is open to all – I hope you will plan to join us at 6:30 pm at LAEC. As a passionate member of the LA equestrian community, I can only speak for myself. But my travels indicate my beliefs are not just mine. All of us have a love of horses, and we share a recognition of what horses have been to our lives. The LA Equestrian Center could and should play a central role for equestrian activities in our area. It should showcase the best of the best. It should highlight, celebrate, and embrace the unique diversity of Los Angeles to create a truly unique experience and build opportunity for people in the industry today and for people who can and should be part of it tomorrow. And with the right public/private partnership, it should demonstrate that the sport can be done locally and affordably. We need LAEC revitalized. And quite honestly, we deserve better than what we have today.
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